My wife, Marcia, and I are septuagenarians — old but experienced and durable. We faithfully get a flu shot every year, take all the usual precautions and have eluded the flu for several years. We also know the influenza virus is a chameleon — that there are multiple strains, and each strain can change genetically over time, even transitioning and transmitting the disease from animal to human hosts. Good antibodies for one strain won’t guarantee immunity to all the rest. There is no universal vaccine.
A few years ago, we had our shots in early September only to come down with roaring cases of the flu just before Thanksgiving. That year the virus morphed after the vaccine went into production and proved no more effective than a cup of chicken soup. On Thanksgiving Day, I had a 103-degree fever and was contemplating an interview with the angel Gabriel.
Enter the coronavirus, a variation that appeared in China a few months ago and is now a raging pandemic. According to The New York Times, as of early March 9, there were 545 cases in the United States and 109,000 cases worldwide. The disease is especially hard on people over 60, with most of the fatalities coming from our age group.
We took note.
While recuperating from my last bout of serious flu, I read Gina Kolata’s book, “Flu,” a study of the 1918 outbreak. Its effects may be a dress rehearsal for what we face with the coronavirus. The book is at the Scott County Library. More background information can be found on the internet.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic infected 25.8 million Americans and killed 650,000 here and tens of millions people worldwide. It was unstoppable and likely ended only when the virus mutated. By then, those afflicted were either dead or had survived and were immune. Fatalities were primarily males aged 20 to 39 who were otherwise healthy and in the prime of life.
The disease appeared in Europe among World War I combatants and quickly spread to military training camps in this country. From there it infected the civilian population. In Minnesota, the first case appeared in Wabasha on Sept. 27, 1918. In a few days it was rampant throughout the state with over 1,000 cases in Minneapolis alone.
The University of Minnesota closed, and on Oct. 11, Dr. H. M Guilford, head of the Minneapolis Department of Health, ordered the closing of the schools and all public facilities.
By March 1919, 1,100 Minneapolis residents had died, according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society. At General Hospital 1,115 patients were treated; one in four died. Overall the disease killed 7,521 Minnesotans in 1918 and 4,200 over the next two years.
The first symptoms were head and body aches accompanied by sore throat, cough and chest congestion. A high fever and pneumonia followed. Victims couldn’t breathe and literally drowned in the fluids that filled their lungs, often succumbing within 48 hours of onset. Author and social critic Mary McCarthy wrote about the tragedy that struck her family on a train trip from Seattle to Minneapolis in the fall of 1918:
Waving good-by in the Seattle depot, we had not known that we carried the flu with us into our drawing rooms, along with the presents and the flowers, but one after another, we had been struck down as the train proceeded eastward. We children did not understand whether the chattering of our teeth and mama’s lying torpid in the berth were not somehow a part of the trip until we saw our father draw a revolver on the Pullman conductor who was trying to put us off the train at a small wooden station in the middle of the North Dakota Prairie.
On arrival in Minneapolis, Mary and her brothers and sisters were taken to their grandparent’s house. A few days later they were orphans.
In 1918 doctors and scientists struggled to understand the cause of the disease and how it spread. Studies made little progress, and then, as fast as the epidemic appeared, it vanished. It wasn’t until 1933 that scientists isolated an influenza virus in pigs and immediately thereafter discovered a similar virus in humans.
Dr. Jonas Salk, who later developed the polio vaccine in 1952, and a colleague, Dr. Thomas Francis, created the first vaccine in 1938. It was used to protect U. S. military forces during World War II. In 2005, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention successfully reconstructed the 1918-1919 virus using archival tissue samples taken, postmortem, from victims of the epidemic.
No one at this point can project the full human and economic consequences of the coronavirus. The situation changes from one moment to the next. The 1918 pandemic is a clue. Unfortunately, our understanding of the virus and its spread has been hamstrung by mixed messages and a fumbled White House response.
Diagnostic test kits were and are urgently needed, and while more are promised, delays make it difficult to track and contain the disease. With a vaccine up to 18 months away, public health officials warn that those over 65 are going to have a rough go of it.
Septuagenarians, unite. Do what Marcia and I are doing. Avoid crowds and close contact with others, especially if they have symptoms. Wash your hands often each day, follow alerts and recommendations from federal, state and local health authorities, cover coughs and sneezes, and if you become ill, drink plenty of fluids and be a hermit. Contact a physician for an appointment if you have a high fever or difficulty breathing.
Above all, be optimistic. Sunshine and summer breezes are coming. Enjoy the simple life.